The London Meeting – Smart People and the Limits of Smart Cities by Joe Cortright*

The growing appreciation of the importance of cities, especially by leaders from business and science, is much appreciated and long overdue.  Many have embraced the Smart City banner.  But each observer, it seems, defines the city in the image of his own profession.  CEOs of IT firms say that cities are “a system of systems” and visualize the city as an increasing and dense flow of information to be optimized.  Physicists have modeled cities and observed relationships between city scale and activity, treating city residents as atoms and describing cities as conforming to “laws.”

In part, these metaphors reflect reality.  In their function, cities have information flows and physical systems.  But a city is something more than its information flows, more than its physical systems, and its citizens need to be viewed as something other than mindless and indistinquishable atoms.

It is important to get the context right, because the prescriptions that flow from partial and incomplete metaphors for understanding cities can lead us tragically in the wrong direction, if we are not careful.  The painful lessons of seven decades of highway building in US cities are a case in point. Epitomized by the master builder, Robert Moses, an engineering metaphor for cities led naturally to the conclusion that we need to optimize our cities to facilitate the flow of automobiles. Indeed, massive investments in freeways (and the re-writing of laws and culture on the use of the right of way) made cities safe for much greater and faster car travel. At the same time they produced massive sprawl, decentralization and longer journeys, and eviscerated many previously robust city neighborhoods.

If we’re really to understand and appreciate cities, especially smart cities, our focus has to be elsewhere.  It has to be on people.  Cities are about people, particularly about bringing people together.  We are a social species, and cities serve to create the physical venues for interaction that generate innovation, art, culture, and economic activity.

What, then, does it mean for a city to be smart?  The most fundamental way a city can be smart is to have highly skilled, well-educated residents.  We know that this matters decisively for city success.  We can explain fully 60% of the variation of economic performance across large US metropolitan areas by knowing what fraction of the adult population has attained a four-year college degree.  There is strong evidence that the positive effects of greater education are social. It spills over to all residents, regardless of their individual education.

Educational attainment is a powerful proxy measure of city economic success because having a smart population and workforce is essential to generating the new ideas that cause people and businesses to prosper.  It is impossible to have a smart city without smart people. Building a smart city, then, isn’t fundamentally about using technology to optimize the efficiency of the city’s physical sub-systems.  The relative efficiency of water delivery or power supply or transportation across cities matters.  But only marginally.  None of these things has nearly the same effect on a city’s success as concentrating and connecting talent.

And it is in this process of mixing people together and creating new ideas that cities excel. Cities are R&D facilities and incubators, not just of new businesses, but art, music, culture, fashion trends and all manner of social activity.  In the process Jane Jacobs so compellingly described, by juxtaposing  diverse people in close proximity, cities produce the serendipitous interactions that generate what she called new work.

We don’t have an exacting recipe for how this happens.  But we do know some of the elements that are essential.  They include density, diversity, design, discovery and democracy.  Density is the concentration of people in a particular place. Cities, as Harvard professor Ed Glaeser puts it, are the absence of space between people.  Less space and more people mean greater opportunities for interaction.  And the form of a city matters.  What happens in the city center–the nucleus–matters, because it is the place that provides key elements of identity and structure and connection for the remainder of the metropolitan area it anchors.

Diversity is the range of different types of people in a place.  We have abundant evidence that the diversity of the population –by age, race, national origin, political outlook,and other qualities — helps provide a fertile ground for combining and recombining ideas in novel ways.

We are becoming increasingly aware that how we populate and arrange the physical character of cities matters greatly.  The arrangement and aesthetic of buildings, public spaces, streetscapes and neighborhoods matter profoundly in determining whether people embrace cities or abandon them.  We have a growing appreciation for the design of urban spaces that provide interesting variety and are oriented to walking and “hanging out.”

The city is an evolving organism that is both host to its citizen inhabitants and also constantly being reinvented by them.  Part of the attraction of cities is their ability to inspire and incubate and adapt to change.  Cities that work well offer their inhabitants new opportunities to learn and discover and improve; they stimulate their creativity.

The “mayor as CEO” is a tantalizing analogy for both mayors and CEOs; CEOs are used to wielding unitary, executive authority over their organizations, and many mayors wish they could do the same in their cities.  But cities are ultimately decentralized, small “d” democratic entities.  Decision-making is highly devolved, and the opportunities for top-down implementation are typically limited. Citizens have voices (through voting) and the opportunity to “exit” by moving, that appropriately limit unilateral edicts.  But cities also give rise to new ideas,  and when they work well, city political systems are permeable to the changing needs and values of their citizens.  Many important changes bubble up.

All of these attributes of cities are susceptible, at least in part, to analysis or description using the constructs of “information flows” or ”systems of systems.”  They may be augmented and improved by better or more widespread information technology. But it would be a mistake to assume that any of them are capable of being fully captured in these terms, no matter how tempting or familiar the analogy.

So ultimately, when we talk about smart cities, we should keep firmly in mind that they are fundamentally about people, about smart people, and creating the opportunity for people to interact.  If we continuously validate our plans against this key observation, we can do much to make cities smarter and help them address important national and global challenges.

*Joe Cortright is President and principal economist for Impresa, a Portland consulting firm specializing in regional economic analysis, innovation and industry clusters. Joe is also a non-resident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution,  and senior policy advisor for CEOs for Cities, a national organization of urban leaders.